Thursday, June 16, 2011

What's the problem with the economy?

Former Labor Secretary and frequent NPR commentator Robert Reich explains the problem in two minutes and fifteen seconds:

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Others Say It Better: May 5, 2011

I am a liar. I said I would continue blogging, but I haven't. I wanted to tell you about John Winthrop's original vision for his Puritan colony in Massachusetts, laid out in his essay "A Model of Christian Charity," the famous "city upon a hill" speech. How God has made some people rich and some poor so that they could honor God by "dispensing his gifts to man by man [rather] than if he did it by his own immediate hands " and "that every man might have need of others . . . [and] be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection."

But the tornado happened in Tuscaloosa last Wednesday. Normal life stopped. And then people acted out Winthrop's vision, especially the part about a community in peril:

"Question: What rule must we observe and walk by in cause of community in peril?

"Answer: The same as before, but with more enlargement towards others and less respect towards ourselves and our own right. Hence it was that in the primitive Church they sold all, had all things in common, neither did any man say that which he possessed was his own."

This tornado has taught me the lesson that objects lose value when they cease to exist, so the objects that still do exist feel like they belong to all. Door signs––mi casa es su casa––become literal. Wallets open to buy others food, toiletries, and, more importantly, drinks to share stories over. "Where were you?" "What did it sound like?" People say "How are you?" and "I'm glad to see you" and mean it. Trivial enmities cease to exist. Some of the haves become have nots, and the have nots become have even less. People are screwed. But people are also loving and sharing and helping one another like I've never seen before. It's a beautiful moment. Yet moments, by their very definition, are an indefinitely short period of time. But those who were here, who lived through this storm, will live in this moment for a very long time . . .

I don't think I can put this experience into any more words, but there are those who have done so, well: Brian Oliu, BJ Hollars, Michael Martone, and Wendy Rawlings (you have to know what you had to know what you lost).

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Blog Must Go On: March 4, 2011.

My father recently asked me if I was going to post any more blogs, because he'd been checking in day after day and only saw Fashawn sitting there paused in front of the Hollywood sign. "If you're not going to post anymore, then you need to let your readers know," Dad said.

I've been buried in teaching. It's winter. The experiment is over. What else do I have to say? I had all kinds of excuses not to post. But this week I received an interesting message on Facebook. It came from a girl I met at a small rock and roll club six years ago while I was tooling around southern New Zealand alone. (She was beautiful, super cool, and French Canadian.) She and her friend took me in like a vagrant and fed me a homemade pizza and poured me wine while we watched Madagascar. The next day, we tried to hit the beach outside Dunedin, but the buses weren't running. We parted ways after that with a promise I would possibly visit her in Montreal some day. Which never happened.

Anyhow, she sent me a documentary called
Carts of Darkness in her message and said it reminded her of me. The video is about homeless and semi-homeless men in North Vancouver who live off of recycleables they take out of neighborhood bins. In their spare time, some of these men bomb the hills of North Vancouver on shopping carts, breaking speeds of 50 mp.h. and sometimes themselves (thank the people of Canada for socialized health care). The movie reminds me of Ted Conover's book Rolling Nowhere, because it isn't about solving the problem of homlessness but the freedom and companionship, as well as the alcoholism, that can be found there. It's about the people who fascinate me the most: outsiders.

One of the best quotes of the movie comes from a retired old-timer who lives in a trailer and collects empty bottles and cans: "Every time that you put effort into work and you're making a little bit of money, you better have a very good plan of what you're going to do with that money, because you're using up your life. We're not prisoners. We should not be prisoners of the economic system that we live in. We should be free . . . free people."

I have more posts planned. One will tie in with the early American literature course I'm teaching this semester (I will attempt to out-Glenn Beck Glenn Beck), and I will return to hunting for homeless in Tuscaloosa . . .

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Part II Day 264: November 10, 2010 (the samsonite man gets called on his life)

My good friend Jefferson Beavers, who knows me better than anyone, called B.S. on my last post, saying he doesn't buy that I want to settle in Tuscaloosa, and he wants me to get over my idea of having a "normal life" (what is "normal"? he says). Jefferson knows, like the rapper Fashawn from my hometown of Fresno, that I'm a "Samsonite Man" and probably always will be:

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Part II Day 259: November 5, 2010 (birthday lunch with the poor, and rolling nowhere . . .)

Sometime in high school, we were asked what we planned on doing after graduation, and I sarcastically answered, "I'm going to die." It was an undeniable truth, is still true, but it masked the fact that I lacked a plan for living my life. In some ways, I still do. You see, I grew up skateboarding, and our only ambitions included getting sponsored and traveling as much as possible. We admired anti-heros and vagrants (a few close friends even called ourselves "Team Vagrant"), the homeless we encountered around Fresno, and the apartments in San Francisco that housed up to nine semi-squating skateboarders. We slept on fellow skateboarders' floors or in people's garages, waiting for the day it would be our turn to move to SF or hit the road on a real company's skate tour.

I tell you all of this because someone recently asked me why I was interested in homeless people. And since I've been reading Ted Conover's book about railroad riding tramps and hoboes (tramps work, hoboes just ride, bums do neither), Rolling Nowhere, I think he puts it more succinctly than I can, when he writes, "I grew up with a romantic vision of hoboes as renegades, conscientious objectors to the nine-to-five work world, men who defied convention and authority to find freedom on the open road." And in my own way, I've accomplished the same thing, traveling the roads of North America, working jobs without alarm clocks or inflexible schedules, and never living in one place more than two years straight. And what has that gotten me?

Today is my thirty-seventh birthday, and while I've traveled everywhere, I've gone nowhere. I'm working part-time as an instructor at at university (who would have ever thought that could happen?) with no health insurance and no job guarantee, not even for next semester. If I didn't have the savings and family I have, I would be on the edge of abject poverty. Maybe that's another reason I'm interested in the poor (and the rich). So today, I've decided to spend my birthday lunch among the poor of Tuscaloosa at the Community Soup Bowl. (To tell you the truth, I have always felt more comfortable around poor people than the rich. There's no formality, no pretension.)

The scene in the Soup Bowl is similar to my earlier visit, with mostly older black males scattered about the cafeteria tables. An elderly white woman serves me a tray containing boiling hot chicken noodle soup, two packs of Saltines, and an overcooked square of cornbread. I pick a Styrofoam cup of apple juice off the counter and take a seat near an older black man who eats with his right hand and holds a crutch with his left.

Again, I'm struck by the sense of community around the dining room. The effervescent black woman who runs the dining room sits and chats with a man. Each person who enters says hello to a few other men around the room, and they genuinely inquire about one another. "You doin' all right?" a recent arrival asks the man at my table. He nods his head and says a slow, "Yeah." But from my perspective, he isn't. While many of the men wear thrift store-like clothes or blue collar work shirts, the kind for plumbers and mechanics, this man's dirty windbreaker and T-shirt betray his possible homeless state. And he needs a crutch to walk. And bread crumbs, the kind a wife would wipe off an oblivious husband, are all over his face, which looks like a Susan Clayton sculpture. He's screwed, I think, but I'm glad he has a place for community and food.

In Conover's book, a tramp tells him that "a fellow could get along if he simply knew the cities and their free resources," utilizing the "Sally" (Salvation Army facilities), the "Willy" (Goodwill stores), and the St. Vinnie's (St. Vincent de Paul). But while citizens often complain of people abusing our system of charity and welfare, it only allows you to "get along," and tramping or poverty is not a glamorous life that many would want nor choose to live. As Conover concludes,"If we're not going to make room for tramps inside society, we can at least make allowances for their presence outside it. We can repeal laws against victimless crimes such as public intoxication and vagrancy, and we can make sure that no one is denied food, warm clothing, and shelter, all which are basic human rights.
"That these things have not been done already can be explained by the way most of us still see hoboes as a race apart, strangers whom we have no need to know and no way of knowing."

That last part reminds me of what I wrote in my last post about the problem of de facto segregation in our cities and not caring about people we don't know. In opposition to that spirit, I came here today hoping to have a conversation with a few people, but I'm feeling too shy, too contemplative on this birthday I never thought I'd see. (I survived the rock star age, 27, but this is my Vincent van Gogh year.) When I finish eating, I walk up to the counter to speak to Amy, the woman who runs the joint. She doesn't recognize me, maybe because I've grown a beard, and she asks me if I need seconds. I tell her I came by a few months ago to volunteer, but never heard anything from her. I ask if I can help, but she says she has more than enough help, which I think speaks volumes to Tuscaloosa's community, driven by Christian charities.

I leave wondering where I go from here. Like the tramps in Conover's book, "plans [are] simply possibilities," not necessarily "something you made and carried out." My life so far, like this project, has been an essay, an experiment in living. But, as Conover says, "sometimes you can get enough of experimenting. Sometimes you want something normal and dependable." I'm hoping to stay in Tuscaloosa for several years, to build my own sense of community, and work toward those things I know I want: a home; a love/life partner; a published book; a stable job; possibly a post-apocalyptic child; and more wonder and travel . . .

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Part II Day 223: September 30, 2010 ("we don't talk about race in Alabama," but we do in Tuscaloosa!)

Position: Community Participant in a Forum on Race Relations in Tuscaloosa

When we talk about race in America, we are also inevitably talking about economics. And when we talk about economics, we are also talking about education. These were all subjects raised at tonight's community forum on race relations in Tuscaloosa, AL. I was impressed that this town––through efforts from groups such as Tuscaloosa Race Relations Initiative, Just Us, Tuscaloosa Education Network, and One Tuscaloosa––is having this conversation, because when I moved here, I heard an instructor quote a student as saying, "We don't talk about race here in Alabama." I don't know of other communities anywhere having this conversation (I'm sure there are, I'm just too lazy and dumb to look into it), but it should be happening everywhere.

After arriving at Central High School, I was seated at a cafeteria table with an interesting mix of people from the community: A male African American doctor; a white male college student from the New College self-guided curriculum program at the U of A; a white female nurse; a female African American who is a professional in her 30s; a white female retired teacher; a man from India in his 60s, who has lived here for 35 years; a white female graduate student studying education; and a distinguished African American gentleman who graduated from the U of A in the 1960s.

The man who entered the U of A in 1966, when he was just one of six African American students (integration, and Governor Wallace's infamous stand, was in 1963), is a successful man (I didn't catch his career) who believes government cannot solve problems, but, rather, Alabamians themselves can decide to change their state and the problems that plague us by channeling our resources and efforts into positive things. He pointed out that Alabama decided it wanted to be great at football, and now they're number one, because Alabamians pool their resources in order to accomplish this. He said that there's too much concentration on race and not enough on these bigger problems, such as those outlined in the article from the Tuscaloosa news I linked in my last post. He also thinks, as some conservatives will say, the problems begin inside the homes, with the parents. He seems to subscribe to the school of "If I can accomplish this, then so can you."

The difficulty with his arguments are that you cannot legislate what goes on inside people's homes, but you can focus resources on education, which, as it's been shown in the southern state of Kerala in India (scroll down on the Web page for this example), can help alleviate many problems, such as lowering birth rates and improving child health, which are huge problems in Alabama.

But we live in a country where 18.2% of African American males are unemployed (national average is 9.5%) and a state where the African American population makes up 26% of the residents but only 12% of the students at the University of Alabama. Add to this that the poorest and worst performing schools are usually the ones with the tannest children, then you see when we're talking about race, we're talking about economics no matter how much you want to believe everyone has an equal opportunity in this great nation. Read one of Jonathan Kozol's books, such as Savage Inequalities or The Shame of the Nation, and you'll be pissed off about the "education gap" too.

But my friend is correct, because we can choose to change the situation, but only if we pool our resources and pump talented people and resources into our poorest and tannest schools. As the late comedian Bill Hicks once said, "Here's what we can do to change the world, right now, into a better ride. Take all that money we spend on weapons and defense each year and, instead, spend it feeding, clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would do many times over––not one human being excluded––and we can explore space together, both inner and outer, forever." So to answer my friend, educated people change what goes on inside and outside their own households, and you can legislate and enforce real equal education.

As we moved around the table, the African American doctor said the problem is that white people don't know what it's like to be black. I wanted to tell him, "Hell, white people don't know what it's like to be white, because we've never understood the position of privilege our skin affords us." (Most of us haven't read Tim Wise's wonderful book White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, where he does a great job explaining white privilege to us.) The doctor said he's had his children invite the white neighbor's children to swim in their pool several times. "You think they've ever swam in my pool? No." He also said he has a white neighbor whom he waves to every day, but the man never waves back. He confronted him one day about his lack of waving, and the man said, "Well, I don't know you."

And there's the problem. There is not enough interaction between the races. Sure, there's a ton more than there was in the 1960s, but, by and large, we still live in incredibly segregated neighborhoods and attend segregated churches. If you're not friends with people who don't look like you, why would you ever give a shit about them? So I raised my hand at the end of the forum and asked if they'll be organizing any informal social events, like happy hours at bars and whatnot (because this is where real change and deals and friendships happen). I said, "You know, I had some great conversations tonight, but I didn't get to speak to those people over there, or the people in the back, and I don't know if I'll see the people from my table again." Because, after the forum, everyone got in their cars and went back to their own parts of town, to their own worlds clouded with their own problems, and we forgot about the bigger problems we face as a culture and community.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Part II Day 221: September 28, 2010 (the "homeless hunter" finds disturbing news in Northport)

Position: The Homeless Hunter of Tuscaloosa

Before I set out on my mission to find the homeless camp under the Northport Bridge this afternoon, the words from my conversation with the poet Tim Skeen a few days ago haunted me: "Are you going over there alone? You're a brave man." And this is from a Hurricane Katrina Red Cross volunteer and an ex-army M.P. who performed clean-up duty on the German Autobahn; we're talking body recovery and watching people burn to death in their cars.

I put on what my brother Joey calls my "Whitesnake jeans"––my rattiest pair––and pull my driver's license out of my wallet and tuck it into my holey pockets, along with my camera and notebook. I don't want to carry money or credit cards, but I figure it's a good idea to have I.D. in case something bad happens or I get harassed by the police.

The bike ride over the bridge is nerve racking, because, even though there's a protected walkway, the four-lane bridge shakes with the weight of trucks and cars, and the rusty chain-link fence between me and the Black Warrior River below rattles, like it's all going to come apart. I make it across and turn right to head under the bridge. I pass the salivation-causing smells of Dreamland BBQ (the "fake" one, as people call it) and hear what sounds like urethane skateboard wheels clacking over sidewalk cracks on the other side of the raised bike path. For a minute I get excited, thinking maybe there's a hand-made cement skatepark, like Burnside in Portland, under this bridge. But when I reach the bike path, I realize it's just the echo of cars click-clacking over the small surface gaps on the bridge above.

Not only does the fantom skatepark not materialize, but there are no blue tarps covering scrape wood and shopping carts, no barrels for fires, no crates for sitting. No homeless encampment at all. There is only the overflow parking lot for Wintzell's Oyster House and some lawn.

I figure I must be mistaken, and I take the bike path east to continue my search. There's a parklike area and some schools but no homeless camp. I head back west, thinking the homeless must be under the railroad bridge to the west. I find the perfect spot for a small homeless camp––it even has graffitied walls––but there isn't a homeless person to be found.

The bridge continues overland a ways, so I decide to ride into downtown Northport and find the bridge's end, where the homeless camp must exist. I cut down a dirt path under the railroad bridge and onto Main Street, eyeing the bridge behind the industrial buildings for signs of the homeless. Nothing. I turn left on 5th St. and find the end of the bridge. To the south lies thick underbrush, and on the other side of a fence, a park which looks like homeless heaven. Even though it has a wooden picnic table, several "No Trespassing" signs mark the area. I think, If you have to go hunting for the homeless, then the town doesn't have a homeless problem. I decide this is the end of the line and the end of my search for today.

I ride back into Northport, the downtown of which looks something like Andy Griffith's Mayberry. (This is where people move to send their children to good public schools, so I've been told.) The downtown is a mishmash of art galleries, children's boutiques, a day spa, and expensive furniture stores, not to mention the best breakfast place in Tuscaloosa County, City Café.

It's the kind of town where the small hardware store is 101 years old (if these walls could talk, I don't think I'd want to hear what they say) and I expect to see Floyd the barber in the four-chair striped-pole barber shop.

Ironically, in this idyllic downtown, the Tuscaloosa News shouts a cover story from the newspaper stand next to the barber shop: West Alabama Lags Behind in Kids' Health. It turns out Tuscaloosa Country ranks 36th in children's' health, which measured "low birth weights, infant mortality rates, the number of births to unmarried teens, the number of children in single-parent families, children in poverty, and high school graduation rates." The most disturbing of these statistics is the high infant mortality rates; according to the article, Tuscaloosa County ranks 59th out of 67 counties, with 12.5 infant deaths per 1,000 live births, twice the national average of 6.7 per 1,000 live births.

And tomorrow's (September 29) edition of The Birmingham News will carry this cover story about how Alabamians are falling deeper and deeper into poverty. According to the article, "In 2009, 17.5 percent of the people in the state––804, 683––lived below the poverty level, well above the national figure of 14.3 percent and a 13.1 percent increase from 2008. . . . Of those, 340,000 lived in deep poverty, which is income below half the poverty level. " But even the rich aren't fairing well, as the number of people making over $200,000 per year in the state dipped from 2.3 percent in 2008 to 2.1 percent in 2009. That's 9,197 less rich people. So where are the homeless, Tuscaloosa?